Senior Laiken Pettit is a third-year starter and a key player in Byron Center's three-year run under veteran John Conlon. Courtesy Photo | Byron Center Athletics
BY DAN STICKRADT
WEB AND CONTENT EDITOR
KENTWOOD, Mich. – Byron Center appears to be peaking at the right time.
After a fourth-place finish in a loaded Ottawa Kent Conference-White Division, the Bulldogs captured their eighth win in their last 10 games to advance to Friday’s 6 p.m. district finals at East Kentwood’s Pat Patterson Complex thanks to Tuesday’s 3-0 shutout of formerly state-ranked Rockford.
“Scoring that goal early set the tone and that was (crucial),” noted third-year Byron Center coach John Conlon, who led the Bulldogs to the Division 2 Final Four in 2021. Conlon is no secret of success, leading East Kentwood’s boys soccer and girls soccer to many deep postseason runs, including a 5-1 record in state title matches in boys soccer.
“We scored that goal around 20 seconds in and led pretty much start to finish,” noted Conlon. “Rockford is a very good team. They had some injury issues down the stretch to key players and didn’t have everyone (healthy). But they are still a good team and they are still very difficult to beat.”
In that 10-game stretch where the Bulldogs have gone 8-2-0, Byron Center has outscored the opposition 38-6 with six shutouts. Overall this season, the Bulldogs (13-3-4) own a 59-14 scoring edge over 20 games with 12 shutouts this season and the only recent defeats came late in the regular season to East Grand Rapids (1-0) and defending Division 2 state champion Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (2-0). Both of those two schools are D-2 title contenders while the third loss also came back in early April to Forest Hills Central (4-1).
“We seem to be peaking which is good,” said Conlon. “We only have three losses and those were to good teams.”
Byron Center will face Caledonia, honorable mention in the polls, in the district championship. The OK Conference Red Division runner-up Fighting Scots (13-4-1) spent more than one month in the top-15 this year and are an imposing matchup for the Bulldogs.
Caledonia and Byron Center, being less than 25 miles apart, did play each other during the regular season this year and that match ended in a scoreless draw way back on March 28.
“Caledonia is very good. They brought back a lot of players this year and they have one of the top players in the state in Jocelyn Herrema and she did not play high school last year. She’s a Miss Soccer candidate,” offered Conlon. “She’s going to Kansas and they are a top 10 team in the nation. She scores a lot of goals and does a lot of nice things for them. Caledonia has a lot of really nice players and it will be difficult to beat them.”
Byron Center, which is only in its second season of Division 12 competition, took care of business against Rockford (9-6-3). The Bulldogs previously cruised past Wyoming (8-0) in its pre-district clash last week and now own an 11-0 scoring edge in the postseason.
Junior Claire Van Zanten scored her team-leading 17th goal on the season for the Bulldogs that gave them the early lead just 20 seconds into the contest. Van Zanten was also the leading goal scorer as a sophomore and she finished off a pass from sophomore Jordan Kerns in the first minute.
Kerns later added an insurance tally while senior forward Laiken Pettit scored the third goal for Byron Center.
“After Claire (Van Zanten) our scoring is kind of spread out and we have a lot of players who can finish,” noted Conlon. “Claire (Van Zanten) is just a tough, gritty player who can finish. She works really hard up top and has become a really good player for us.”
Catie Morrell made eight saves for the Bulldogs’ 12th clean sheet of the campaign. The Bulldogs lowered their team goals-against-average to 0.70 on the season, only eight schools have even scored on them and only one team to score more than two goals on Byron Center was the aforementioned Forest Hills Central.
Senior Rachel Phelan is a third-year starter and a key player in Byron Center's three-year run under veteran John Conlon. Courtesy Photo | Byron Center Athletics
Junior Claire VanZanten is one pof Byron Center's leading goal scorers the past couple of seasons. Courtesy Photo | Byron Center Athletics
Byon Center goalkeeper Catherine Morrell readies herself for a restart to be shot in her direction during a recent game. Courtesy Photo | Byron Center Athletics